《To Understand Buddhism》

Venerable Master Chin Kung (淨空法師)



After we understand clearly the goal of the Buddha's teachings, we will view the sutras differently.   These sutras are one of the world's largest literary   collections. I believe that when considering the   range of all academia, none of them surpass Buddhism. To obtain the benefits from this vast collection, it is necessary for us to know and understand the   essence of its content, which is the true reality of all   Dharma, the true reality of life and the universe. Life   refers to ourselves. Universe refers to the living environment that surrounds us. It would be incorrect to   treat Buddhism as an abstract and obscure learning   that had nothing to do with our daily lives. Every   word in the sutra closely relates to our daily living.   Furthermore, it is  definitely not superstition.

How and where do we start? For convenience,   the perfection in the methods of the Buddha's   teaching uses a high level of creativity. Buddhism of   two thousand years ago had already taken an artistic path. For  example, all the Buddha's names and   sculptures represent our virtuous nature, innate qualities of wisdom, virtuous abilities and artistic talents.   All of the Bodhisattva's names and forms represent our cultivation of virtue. They instruct us how to apply   the teachings in our daily lives to bring out our virtuous nature so we may receive Buddhism's benefits. 

In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, four great   Bodhisattvas represent our order of practice and   level of achievement. The first is Earth Store Bodhisat tva(地藏菩薩). Whether we are thinking of worldly teachings,   the dharma or Buddhism; nothing can be accomplished without the earth or a place of existence.

The existence of humans cannot be separated from   our great earth as we rely upon it for survival.   Whether for food, clothing, living or working, all rely   on the production of the land, thus the infinite treasures that the great earth encompasses are seemingly endless for us to use. The word "earth" in the   name Earth Store  Bodhisattva represents the mind   and the word "store" means treasure.   

The Buddha's teachings guide us to first start the   practice from our mind, as our true nature encompasses the infinite wisdom and virtuous abilities that   are no different from those of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas. However, today it seems as if we have lost   our innate wisdom and virtuous abilities. The Buddha   told us that all these qualities are not truly lost, just not   yet uncovered. In the present moment, we endlessly   immerse ourselves in wandering, discriminating thoughts and attachments, which have resulted in   this temporary loss of abilities.

However, inside the   true mind, no wandering thoughts exist. If a mind has   wandering thoughts then that mind is a false one.   We originally possessed this true mind, so practicing   Buddhism is simply recovering it. Therefore, our first   goal in practice is to uncover and look for the treasure in our mind. In other words, the Buddha's   teachings do not seek from the outside but rather   they seek from within our self-nature.

Earth Store Bodhisattva represents filial piety  thus, the Earth Store Sutra is about filial piety, a basic   concept that everyone would do well to start from.   The kindness that our parents have shown by giving   us life and nurturing us is beyond description. To be   filial and take care of our parents is naturally our basic responsibility. Not only do we need to take care   of their material needs but of their spiritual life as well.

Moreover, we need to nurture their aspirations for us   and for us, this is the hardest of all. Parents wish their
children to have successful careers, behave well,   and to be respected by current and future generations. In other words, we would do well to act in a   manner, which will make them proud of us. There fore, the ultimate and perfect achievement of filial   piety is to become Buddha. We begin our practice from here and expand our filial piety and respect to    include all sentient beings.

The second Bodhisattva, Guan Yin, represents   the cultivation of great compassion and kindness.   What is the meaning of making offerings to Guan Yin   Bodhisattva? It is to remind us that we would do well   to treat all people with great compassion and kindness, to use unconditional love and care to help all   sentientbeings.

The third Bodhisattva, Manjusrid(文殊菩薩), represents wisdom and rationale, reminding us that when we practice and interact with others we need to fulfill our filial   duty, to rely upon wisdom and rationale, not on   emotion.The fourth Bodhisattva, the Great Samantabhadra(普賢菩薩)(Universal Worthy) represents carrying out   the cultivation truthfully, applying filial piety, compassion, kindness and rationale in our daily lives.

When   we perfectly achieve the way of Universal Worthy   Bodhisattva, we become a Buddha. Buddhism   teaches us how to live in harmony with the true reality of life and the  universe. In other words, we would   live perfect and wonderful lives similar to those of   Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This is the true, ultimate   and perfect Mahayana teaching.

To practice Buddhism, we start by:

1) Being filial and respectful toward parents,   teachers and elders,

2) Having the great compassionate mind,

3) Nurturing our thinking and wisdom and

4) Broadening our mind.

Although in sequence, they also can be practiced simultaneously, as each encompasses the others. For example, being filial to parents includes   compassion and kindness, reasoning and wisdom.   Wisdom includes being filial, compassionate and   kind.

Once we have a general understanding of Buddhism, how do we apply it to our daily living? First we   need to know what each Buddha and Bodhisattva   represents. If we do not, then Buddhism would be   reduced to superstition and we would not receive its   true benefits. All Buddhist sutras contain these qualities, characteristics and the ways of practice; there  fore, learning only one sutra will be enough. We   need to know how to understand and apply the   teachings effectively.

Usually in the center of the main hall of a temple,   there are statues of one Buddha and two Bodhisattvas, which represent our self-nature and original   entity. The two Bodhisattvas represent our virtuous abilities within our self-nature; one is understanding   and the other is practice. If the Buddha in the middle is Buddha Shakyamuni, then the two figures on   either side of him will be Manjusri(文殊師利菩薩) and Universal Worthy Bodhisattvas(普賢菩薩), representing wisdom and application respectively.

Thus, understanding and practice   are combined into one. If the hall has the three   sages of Western Pure Land, with Buddha Amitabha   in the middle, representing self-nature, then the two   figures on either side of him will be Guan Yin(觀世音菩薩)and   Great Strength Bodhisattvas(大勢至菩薩). They  respectively represent compassion and wisdom, completely symbolizing the infinite wisdom and virtuous capabilities.   Therefore, we again see that Buddhism is a teaching.

There are profound teachings within the names   of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, for example the   name of Buddha Shakyamuni tells us the principles of   the Buddha's education. "Shakya" means humanity   and kindness. "Muni" means purity of mind. The   teachings of these two qualities are advocated be cause people in our world lack compassion and   kindness, and are often selfish.

Moreover, all sentient   beings lack purity of mind, constantly dwelling in   wandering thoughts, greed, anger, ignorance and   arrogance. Any Bodhisattva who becomes a Buddha in this world will be named Shakyamuni to teach us the remedy for our problems. Once the representations of Buddha and Bodhisattva statues are understood intuitively just by looking at them, we will   perfectly comprehend the goal of the Buddha's   teachings.

When we enter the first hall of a way place, the   Hall of Heavenly Guardians(天王殿), we will see the statue of   Maitreya Bodhisattva(彌勒菩薩)surrounded by the four Heavenly Guardians(四大天王)in the middle of the hall. Maitreya   Bodhisattva, known in the west as the Happy Buddha, has a huge smile representing joyfulness. His   great stomach represents enormous tolerance and   broad-mindedness, teaching us to interact with others and matters with joy, to be non-discriminating   and tolerant. Next to him are four Heavenly Guardians(四大天王)or Dharma Protectors(護法善神)who teach us how to protect ourselves.

The Eastern Dharma Protector(東方持國天王), symbolizes fulfill  ing our duty and responsibility, teaching us that regardless of position, we need to fulfill our duties. He is   holding a lute in his hand. The strings of the instrument should not be too tight, or else they will break;   nor should they be too loose or they will not play well.   When properly adjusted and balanced, the instrument will play beautifully, clearly symbolizing that we   need to take the middle path when interacting with matters, people and objects. When each of us fulfills   our responsibilities and obligations, how could the   nation not prosper?

The Southern Dharma Protector(南方增長天王)symbolizes improvement and daily advancement. Not only do   matters need to be taken care of appropriately;   continuous improvement also needs to be sought. In   his right hand, the Southern Dharma Protector holds   the sword of wisdom and in his left hand a ring symbolizing the perfection of wisdom, showing us that   we need to use wisdom in seeking improvement.   The sword symbolizes how we need to sever afflictions before they are out of control.

The third and fourth Heavenly Guardians are the   Western and the Northern Dharma Protectors(西方廣目天王、北方多聞天王), representing comprehensive vision and listening respectively. Both teach us to observe and listen more   carefully as well as to read numerous books and   travel to many places for comprehensive learning.   They teach us to do well in our job, to adopt the   good qualities as well as to disregard the shortcom ings of others.

The Western Dharma Protector西方廣目天王represents farsighted observation and holds a dragon or snake.  The dragon or snake symbolizes constant change. In   his other hand he holds a bead, symbolizing principles. People, matters and objects in society undergo   changes constantly. We need to observe very   carefully and thoroughly, to have a firm grasp on the   principles within in order to be able to control this   "dragon or snake."

The Northern Dharma Protector(北方多聞天王)  holds an umbrella to prevent us from being contami nated. This reminds us that within a complex society,   we need to know how to protect our body and mind   from pollution and corruption. From these examples,   we can see that the artistic aspects of the Buddha's   education are truly beautiful. Unfortunately, many   people regard these Dharma protectors as gods to   be worshipped, which is totally wrong.


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